The following letter was emailed to our urban studies students on June 5, 2020.
We, the Urban Studies Program at Trinity College, write today to express our solidarity with those communities peacefully protesting the murder of George Floyd and we would like to add our voices to their call for an end to racism and police brutality. We want to reach out to you—our community of urban studies scholars—because we are all experiencing the deleterious impacts of this event amid the larger COVID-19 pandemic.
The murder of George Floyd has provoked protests and ramped up police violence across the nation. The tragic death of Floyd took place in the mid-western U.S. city of Minneapolis; however, the social inequalities and structural violence that are at the root of this event have been the status quo for many Americans, which has led to the social outrage and mass demonstrations that we are witnessing across the United States and globally as communities in Germany, the UK, New Zealand, Brazil and elsewhere have expressed solidarity. Some of the messages behind these protests include calls for anti-racist actions and calls to hold police responsible for murder. Yet, these manifestations are also lined with the frustration, fear, and desperation that are experienced in the everyday lives of people during this public health and economic crisis. Such sentiments are a direct result of real-life consequences for individuals and families like job loss, food shortage, and the lack of basic, affordable healthcare, to name a few. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended American society, showing the class-, race-, gender- and ability-based injustices and inequalities through which we all live. Today people protest because our political, social, and economic systems are broken.
There is tremendous loss and hopelessness, yet as we all process what is happening around us, we must also be critical scholars engaged with the world to seek an alternative, better future. These protests are also fundamentally urban phenomena. So, together, we have compiled some resources that we find helpful to us to think through some of these complex issues that we have laid out above from urban studies perspectives. Our intent is to not provide a prescription, but, rather, to draw attention to how cities and their public spaces are again the battlegrounds to contest issues of equality and justice. With these resources, we invite you all to engage with them, reach out to us with questions, or to debate with us and amongst yourselves. We hope your studies will keep you motivated throughout the summer and we look forward to resuming these debates in the classroom in September.
The Urban Studies Program
Structures of Oppression: Patriarchy, Capitalism and Racism:
From Julie Gamble: What is happening around us makes us have to reflect on differing and intersectional systems of oppression. Defining patriarchy is difficult, though the concept is theorized well through sociologist Sylvia Walby. Here’s a quick link that discusses the six patriarchal structures which restrict women and maintain male domination. Such categories have to be carefully thought through. Scholar and activist bell hooks has published widely on black feminism and how masculinity can change. The dialectical dynamics that underpin and uphold patriarchy are capitalism and racism. Here’s a short and quick youtube video that explains the relation and as it relates to space and scale by Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The 1619 project by the New York Times is a fantastic piece of journalism that also takes on the relationship. For a comprehensive syllabus and further readings on race, place and space, see University of College London’s Development Planning Unit syllabus.
From Laura Delgado: In “Walking While Black,” Garnette Cadogan writes about what it was like to move from Jamaica, a majority black country, to the United States and all of a sudden to be treated like a threat simply because he is black. He explores how the simple act of walking around cities, such as New Orleans and New York, is more dangerous, physically and emotionally, because he is black.
- Cadogan, G., 2016. Walking While Black. Lit Hub.
Civil Unrest, Protest and Race Riots:
From Julie Gamble: Cities in their truest definition are sites of contestation and protest through which politics are displayed and played out in public. Crowds have power when they show up in masses around the world. In the context of American cities, The New York Times and other newsprint media sources offer a couple of pieces that speak to the shifting sites of civil unrest in urban areas. For a quick review in the city we in urban studies always turn to, see this piece on Chicago. Today, there is a greater question on whether we are repeating mistakes of the 1960s, but rebellions popping up are also around new sites of consumption in the city. Such a claim is nascent and requires much, much more research, but it is worth looking at some of the sites that looting is occurring in U.S. cities. For great books that discuss the complex factors between the city, race riots and economic inequality see books like historian Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, or return to historian Llana Barber’s recent work many of you have a copy of, Latino City.
From Julie Gamble: The iconic Rosa Parks acted in protest to the segregation of bodies on the bus. Public transportation systems connect public and private lives in the city. It is also well-established that transportation policies have had an inequitable role on minorities. In our daily lives, we all start from the home and have to get to places of opportunity to travel. Here’s a YouTube clip to better think through this connection. The journey itself is never itself equal and commuting uncovers racial disparities. Just reflecting about the body and movement can take you in many directions, connecting many geographies of the city. There is so much to say on access, rights and transport. Remember, access is also shaped by an individual’s abilities. For a recent and fantastic book, Kafui Ablode Attoh’s book on Rights in Transit in Oakland is a solid choice. For a larger discussion on rights and mobility, see Mimi Sheller’s Mobility Justice. Today in particular in the COVID-19 pandemic world, the bicycle has returned as a mobility option for communities. Cycling and considering the needs of poor and invisible cyclists is a way forward. Finally, just as transport systems enable, the process of quarantining is not equal for all and has rendered mobile systems immobile. An Op-Ed NYT piece by geographer Brandi T. Summers, breaks down what this means for Black communities.
Environment, Pandemics, and Health:
From Julie Gamble: The built environment has a direct relationship to the wellness of society. There is a strong set of literature that discusses environmental racism in the United States. The work of urban planner Malo André Hutson uncovers the association between Metropolitan Fragmentation and Health Disparities in the U.S. From a mental health perspective, Root Shock of Mindi Fullilove, M.D. does a thorough job on relating changes in the urban built environment, planning and mental health. The broader field of environmental justice is a reaction to the injustices that communities have experienced historically and currently. For a critical take on the subject, review the work of David Naguib Pellow. Documented environmental processes that have produced inequitable results on poor and black communities can include but are not limited to neighborhood destruction and redevelopment, natural disasters, toxic exposure, or the lack of food options. Communities have faced disproportionate impacts from public health atrocities like the HIV/AIDS pandemic that are also wrapped up in issues related to class, sexuality and gender, which is a book you can access through the Trinity Library system for free. From a planning perspective, the work of Tuft’s Julian Agyeman interlocks ideas of social justice and sustainability through the concept of just sustainabilities. Here the work of Jason Corburn connects the fields of urban planning and public health by conceptualizing a Health City. Finally, really important work on food deserts and resilience check out the fantastic work of anthropologist Ashanté Reese on Black Food Geographies. Such a rich and diverse set of texts gives you an idea into the complexities around the current numbers and impacts of COVID 19 on racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S.
From David Lukens: Johnson, S., 2006. The ghost map: The story of London’s most terrifying epidemic–and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world. Penguin.
Cities have always been home to outbreaks of disease and have always hit the poor the hardest. Despite the claims of many that Covid-19 might be the “end of cities” (see below!), cities have proven resilient. The desire to maintain city-life in the face of wave after wave of cholera and flu outbreaks in early industrial cities has instead been a driver for significant advances in science and can also lead to improved living conditions across social classes. This book tells the story of a cholera outbreak in London and how it led to better sanitation and living conditions in London and in cities around the world.
Policing and Incarceration:
From Julie Gamble: Urban unrest is also the direct result of police violence and high rates of incarceration of poor communities. UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez and Dr. Danielle Dupuy run the Million Dollar Hoods Program which has the mission to end mass incarceration. The program maps out the impact of incarceration on communities in Los Angeles. The Stanford Policing Project tracks the racial disparities in policing through the use of big data. At the same time, the criminalization of blackness has a violent history embedded. Here’s a great list of reading sources compiled by the Abusable Past Collective. Quickly I just want to highlight that the mass incarceration of individuals is also seen with undocumented persons who have been and are currently being held in immigrant detention centers. There is much to be said here on this subject, but for now I share a great piece that was featured today in the New York Times about the spread and management of COVID 19 in a detention center.
From Laura Delgado: In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander details the history of discrimination and enslavement of African Americans in the United States and how mass incarceration is yet one more iteration of these racist policies and practices. She shows how even “race blind” policies are designed to disproportionately target black individuals in the U.S. and how prisons have become new forms of slavery.
- Alexander, M., 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, New York, NY.
From David Lukens: First, I’d like to second the new Jim Crow above, great choice Laura. It’s well-written, clear, and does an excellent job of being fair despite being a scorching indictment of racist policies. Another book I read around the same time and provided another dimension to the failures of the US criminal justice system. Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside demonstrates that despite excessive policing of black neighborhoods, murder cases remain a low priority, leading to cycles of violence as the state has effectively failed in its role to maintain a “monopoly on violence” and instead focused on the war on drugs.
Leovy, J., 2015. Ghettoside: A true story of murder in America. Spiegel & Grau.
Property and Housing:
From Gabby Nelson: I am working on a housing research project this summer (on measuring the effects of community development corporation work to revitalize housing) and have been thinking through these issues as they relate to the affordable housing crisis, neighborhood decline, inequality, and the intersection of all of these themes with race. A great book on inequality and housing is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016). Not only is Desmond’s research insightful, but the book is also a real page-turner. Another good book is Race for Profit by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2019). Whiteness as Property by Cheryl I. Harris (1993) was also recommended to me by Julie Gamble to understand the relationship between race and property.
From Laura Delgado: The Furman Center at NYU’s The Dream Revisited is a series of debates among current experts on racial and economic segregation. It is a helpful place to start reading when learning about new topics (or exploring different perspectives on familiar topics) related to segregation, housing policy, race, and poverty. A good place to start is with the first debate, “Why Integration?”
In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates details how racist policies, practices, and individuals have discriminated against African Americans across generations and robbed them of freedom and property. This is a helpful and accessible article that explains why African Americans deserve reparations and where the fight for reparations stands.
- Coates, T.-N., 2014. The case for reparations. The Atlantic.
From David Lukens: Jackson, K.T., 1987. Crabgrass frontier: The suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press.
If you’ve taken a class with me you’ve probably read a chapter or two of this book. It is an excellent explanation of how federal policy incentivized the sprawling urban form that dominates the US today. It is also one of the clearest explications of how “structural racism” is produced by both intentional and unintentional acts and has long-lasting effects through its explanation of redlining and its connection to suburbanization. One of my favorite books!
Rothstein, R., 2017. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing.
An updated and more focused look at how legal structures created the intense racial and socio-economic segregation we see in the US today. Covers some of the same ground as Jackson above, but provides more contemporary evidence of its effects and a bit more of the legal nitty-gritty.
Rorty, R. 1998. Achieving our country: Leftist thought in twentieth-century America (Vol. 86). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
This lecture from pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty wrestles with the challenges of addressing identity-politics and inequities and achieving the lofty ideals associated with the US’ founding. It has become famous for his prediction of the rise of a strongman leader in the US and the consequent roll-back of civil protections for marginalized groups, but more importantly, it challenges readers to carefully consider the relationship between theory and practice in political discourse. It is certainly at odds with some very popular perspectives right now, but if nothing else may help in thinking through some nuances at a time when no one wants there to be any.
From Garth Myers:
Seeing these issues in Hartford:
Battle, S. and Golden-Battle, A. (eds) (2016) The state of black Hartford, Hartford: Urban
League of Greater Hartford. Detailed analysis from the Urban League that includes coverage of both Black and Latinx Hartford. Authors discuss history, economics, politics, religion, social justice and many other themes.
Cruz, J. (1998) Identity & power: Puerto Rican politics & the challenge of ethnicity,
Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Built from his dissertation, the book is an in-depth, insider’s look at Puerto Rican communities in Hartford in relation to the island’s politics and US politics. Hartford has a hugely important place in radical political organizing and activism for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.
Classic and/or essential studies on Black Urban Life:
Carter, D. (2010) Navigating the African diaspora: The anthropology of invisibility,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. A moving analysis of African migrant experiences in Europe and the US and in relationship with African-American urban communities.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) The souls of black folk, Chicago: A. C. McClurg. One of the most important books ever written, let’s face it. There is a short chapter on Atlanta that might have been written this week, even though it was written almost 120 years ago.
Hunter, M. A. and Robinson, Z. F. (2018) Chocolate cities: The black map of American life, Oakland: University of California Press. A lively and accessible approach to the development and evolution of African-American urban communities. The authors engage with (and interviewed) important figures in African-American cultural politics.
McKittrick, K. (2006) Demonic grounds: black women and the cartographies of struggle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. A widely cited book that has become the talisman of a movement for Black Geographies.
Woods, C. (2017) Development drowned and reborn: the blues and bourbon restorations in post-Katrina New Orleans, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. This posthumously-published work analyzes the politics and racial dynamics within competing visions for the reconstruction of New Orleans after the 2005 Katrina disaster.
Policing, race and space:
Herbert, S. (1997) Policing space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. A careful ethnographic analysis of how the LAPD utilized space and territoriality. Herbert did more than 100 “ride-alongs” with police that enabled him to develop what he called the “normative ordering” that police use, including intersections with racism, sexism, and masculinism.
Lebron, M. (2019) Policing life and death: Race, violence and resistance in Puerto Rico, Oakland: University of California Press. A very accessible study of racism, sexism, and homophobia, mainly in the greater San Juan area.
Essential urban geography texts on these themes:
Harvey, D. (2008) ‘The right to the city’, New Left Review53: 23-40. The distillation of Harvey’s interpretation of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of this name.
Soja, E. (2010) Seeking spatial justice, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. A brief reframing of Soja’s theorization on space and justice, under the sway of his somewhat different take on Lefebvre. It includes detailed and engaged narratives on the political activism of the LA Bus Riders Union and of the planners, geographers and students of the “LA School” of urban studies.
Then there’s this one:
From Yipeng Shen:
Neoliberalism in non-Western contexts
Huang, E. (2020) Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility, Durham and London: Duke University Press. Understanding systems of oppression from a non-Western perspective is important for 21-st century students. It views modernizationist abstraction of urban space as an affective experience through the documentation, representation, and cultural consumption of Chinese urban reform and life.
Professor Xiangming Chen has recommended the following articles that will help you better understand the intersection between the coronavirus pandemic, racial health disparities, urban space, governance capacity, poverty, and America’s shifting reputation in an interconnected world, from a comparative perspective.
- “America’s Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further,” by Ed Yong, The Atlantic, May 22, 2020.
This article traces and makes sense of “how the coronavirus is coursing through different parts of the U.S. in different ways, making the crisis harder to predict, control, or understand.”
- “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?” by Rashawn Ray, The Brookings Institution, April 9, 2020.
This article explains why “when America catches coronavirus, Black people die.”
- “Is Covid-19 the end of cities?” by Joe Cortright, City Observatory, April 20, 2020.
This article challenges two claims: 1) “Cities are losing their allure,” and 2) Moving to the suburbs to escape the pandemic.
- “Political Economy and Democratic Capacity to Respond to Pandemics,” by Thomas Pepinsky, Social Science Research Council, May 21, 2020.
This article explores “one explanation for why some countries are more successful at managing Covid-19 than others.”
- “Turning back the Poverty Clock: How will COVID-19 impact the world’s poorest people?” by Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel, Brookings Institution, May 6, 2020.
This article estimates that extreme poverty will rise this year by about 50 million people in the post-COVID world compared to an earlier 2020 forecast.
- “Fury at America and Its Values Spreads Globally,” by Robin Wright, The New Yorker, June 1, 2020.
This article shows that “America is on the defensive worldwide over the murder of George Floyd and all that the killing implies about race, values, and leadership—not to mention common decency—in the United States.”